What T.S. Eliot said in his famous poem “The Waste Land” –we are of course talking about that first and often cited verse that reads, “April is the cruellest month”– could be applied perfectly to musical information. April is an obtuse month, so full of new releases that it’s almost suffocating, although October and November aren’t far behind in that respect. In fact, they’re worse. This is a time of recovery after the summer –which is usually the time to relax the rhythm, stretch the muscles and empty the wallet: all that has to be regenerated afterwards, like a wound that needs to heal– and it’s the time previous to Christmas, the final sprint of the year, when reflection is needed and people are in a hurry to get to the end. In conclusion, during these days of autumn more records are released than can be taken in, more than what a journalist can take and more than what any magazine (unlike Pluto, space is limited here) can handle. In other words: there is still enough dance music to tile two bathrooms with. Maybe October isn’t a cruel month, nor is November, but they both do cause a lot of stress and make a lot of things get left behind, overlooked. One keeps hearing records, receiving them via mail and even playing them out, and in the end comes to the conclusion that the piles of new releases scattered all over the place are enough to be listening to fresh material for as many years as the Roman Empire existed. So this month, and to break the routine of the column, we have to talk about the records we haven’t yet discussed in Playground, as cosmic justice would demand and from which the fires are still giving off light and warmth. Do you want to follow me? It’s this way.
Commix: “Re:Call To Mind” (Metalheadz) In the recent history of drum’n’bass –which we’ve been hearing so little of since we all became hypnotised by the pale lights of dubstep–, “Call To Mind” and its makers, Commix, deserve an honourable mention. A liquid and at the same time funky album, but never schmaltzy or coffee table-ish, the Cambridge duo’s debut album was the closest the euphoric side of jungle has come to excellence in the past decade, alongside High Contrast’s first LP. Still a bastion of the underground –and link between the past (Fabio, Blame, EZ Rollers) and the half-step and mysterious present of Consequence and Genotype–, “Call To Mind” is now a cult record among a small group of people, transversal between genres, so much so that on “Re:Call To Mind” it gets a remixologic massage on a par with the circumstances. It’s more an act of justice than one of vanity, and in the meantime deep dubstep –via the much talked about Burial remix and the other, better one by Pangaea–, gets together with the axis of Berlin techno –Marcel Dettmann, Sigha, but most of all A Made Up Sound, who cite Basic Channel in their remix but also Mootrbass, thus leaving the door open to house (which is how Kassem Mosse enters, triumphantly)– and drum’n’bass, courtesy of Instra:mental and dBridge. Although everything pales in comparison with the ten epic final minutes offered by an on fire Underground Resistance. You need a cold shower after listening to this from start to finish.
Jack Sparrow: “Circadian” (Tectonic) If he were a Leeds United player, R. Garth would be one of those central defenders that clear every ball without thinking twice and attack their rivals’ tibia with the same efficiency as a chainsaw cutting the trees of the Amazon rainforest. But it turns out the ball is not his thing; dubstep is, which makes Jack Sparrow –really, what can be expected from a guy who uses such a buccaneer alias?– the most loyal conserver of the post-Shackleton and post-Pinch vein of dark, menacing dubstep growing towards techno, of impeccable technical execution. “Circadian” sometimes leans towards drum’n’bass ( “Regress” is pure “Modus Operandi” era Photek), but is, in essence, a dissection of the turbulent soul of British urban music at 130 BPM and with hair-raising bass pressure. Apart from the one time he gets a bit festive ( “Terminal” is much in debt with the rhythmic strategies of UK funky), there are dozens of moments during which the break seems to be about to bite you like a rabid dog and guttural voices sound from the ultratomb. If you compare it to Girl Unit or Deadboy it might sound old and boring, but try to listen to this in the dark: Sparrow will weaken your bowels.
Marc Houle: “Drift” (M_nus) Up until “Inside”, everything is alright: “Drift” starts out like a classic M_nus record, with its sound of marbles on a mirror and all kinds of plug-ins, squeezing the technique of techno based on Ableton Live and other software patterns. The only thing that sets it apart from Houle’s other tracks and extended plays –like “Bay Of Figs”– is that it’s a kind techno that is more concise, outlines without tricks, without those spiral melodies that would drill your skull up to the point of going mad. But once past this introduction, surprise: on this album –his first real LP, as neither “Restore” (2004) nor “Sixty-Four” (2008) were– Marc Houle offers up a variety of nuances, tempos and textures in order to avoid predictability in the already out-of-date minimal techno panorama. Many pieces move wearily, there are echoes and thunder all the time, and the dark bass drum is never the sole lead on the record. It’s not a masterly treatise on experimental techno –like the latest efforts by Farben, Margaret Dygas and ndf–, but there’s an elasticity, like a DJ who has submitted his productions to a Pilates course, that we hadn’t heard on any of Richie Hawtin’s label’s releases in a long time. The beat is the occasional complement to the crunches, buzzes and suspense film notes that this time don’t seem merely pyrotechnics.
Red Rack’Em: “The Early Years” (Bergerac) Daniel Berman doesn’t deserve to be a producer for select and silent minorities, that’s unacceptable. But unfortunately, it’s like that: like Mark E, another innate talent of neo-disco drenched in space funk (and, like him, pure English), he remains a cult artist among lovers of new grooves with retro flavour and exquisite edits, which are probably played by the third leg of this hypothetical British triumvirate, veteran DJ Greg Wilson. Red Rack’Em has been producing since 2003 and releasing records under this moniker since 2008 on labels such as Tirk, Deep Freeze and his own Red Rack’Em, much to the joy of those who need a bit of warmth, bongos and deep-house synths in their ears. The thing with the English school of neo-disco is that, unlike the Norwegian branch, it hasn’t been able to sell itself properly, it arrived at first level too late and still transmits a nostalgia for the soulful side of things –while Todd Terje, Lindstrøm and their peers went off into outer space–, but that doesn’t mean the music isn’t intense or sexually charged. This overview of Red Rack’Em’s early years are proof of the fact that Berman had magic fingers even before releasing his first 12” as Hot Coins. Listen here.
VHS Head: “Trademark Ribbons Of Gold” (Skam)A record like this one cannot be handled on the go, in a couple of lines: it requires a generous amount of paragraphs and highly favourable adjectives, but what can I do? Here goes the digest version. When the first VHS Head EP, “Video Club” (Skam, 2009), appeared on the IDM scene, there were people who suspected it was a side project to Boards Of Canada or Gescom. Effectively, it had the nostalgic melodies of the first and the wild, crooked and foreshortening cut’n’paste of the latter, although it didn’t sound like any of them –and it wouldn’t be until 2010 before we found their equivalents: Games, Com Truise and that whole wave of eighties-inspired sampling pop artists who are as reminiscent of Art Of Noise as they are of Jan Hammer. VHS Head turned out to be Ade Blacow, a Blackpool citizen and obsessive collector of old video tapes, hence the name, and a good handful of samples that on this album are displayed at random, frantically, crudely and excitingly. On miniatures like “Sunset Everett” or “Gianasi” there is a concentration of allusions, up to twenty of them –from hard rock, via Daft Punk to eighties hip-hop, from the nostalgia of lost childhood to the prog guitars of Mike Oldfield, dialogues from cult films and TV documentary soundtracks– that make this record a rollercoaster ride supported by electro breaks, synthesiser guitars and neon light pianos. It leaves you breathless.
Onmutu Mechanicks: “Nocturne” (Echocord) Arne Weinberg could be the messiah of neo-Detroit: he hasn’t moved an inch from the path he has been following for years now, releasing techno, always according to some eternal laws that are almost as old as Hammurabi’s code –in his case it would be the ten commandments of Metroplex, Planet E and Basic Channel–, consistent laws of watery and galactic textures, and rhythms that leave in their wake echoes and emotional noise like comets (plus the anxiety to escape into space and travel to infinity). That’s why he is a cult figure followed by loyal disciples –there’s few of them but they’re willing to buy anything the man does–, and that’s why he can unfold under this alias, Onmutu Mechanicks, started in 2008 with a 12” on Echochord, which allows him to indulge his most atmospheric side. There is no romantic techno here but instead fluvial techno halfway between Global Communication and Monolake. Pure weightlessness for the almost 80 minutes, a product with a nineties flavour, aimed at a very specific audience –the one that sees him as that messiah, that incorruptible spirit we mentioned before– and that is happy to function in that context (or in a dark living room, maybe with just the blue light of a table lamp, to read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu novels). It transmits the intrigue of past times and strange auras.
Onmutu Mechanicks - When You Return
Tony Lionni: “As One” (Freerange)The key to this album is in its most obvious moment, the fourth track: “Found Another Place”. The wordplay is obvious to those who gobbled up his 2009 release on Ostgut Ton, “Found A Place”, the hymn that could have situated the piano track in the eye of the clubber hurricane once again. At that time, Tony Lionni was the man of hour, the umpteenth saviour of techno who united the seniority, refined style and wisdom of someone who has been brought up with the classics. “Found Another Place” is a remake of that marvellous tune on which, of course, the piano reappears, only in a different context: there is no deep techno background on which the piano appears to break the ice and start a wave of enthusiasm; here it’s house, the piano comes in right at the start and adapts like latex to the logic of passionate and sonically rich deep house. “As One” is an exuberant garden of Detroit soul which in part could raise a disappointment: at the time we found him closer to Carl Craig than to Moodymann, but this album, covered in sexed-up voices in the distance, deep chords and harmonies, aerial synthesisers, jazz ( “Tees Theme”) and a huge tribute to Fingers Inc.’s “Can You Feel It” ( “Waiting For You”), also has its place. Deeper than the Mariana Trench, shinier than polished gold. By the way, it sounds a bit like Kirk Degiorgio’s As One. A tribute?
Macc & dgoHn: “Some Shit Saaink” (Subtle Audio-Rephlex) Macc makes old school drum’n’bass, like when Rob Playford produced almost the whole catalogue of Moving Shadow and was the genius in the shadows behind Goldie: his breaks are rhythmic labyrinths in which the bass lines and drums intertwine until they fall on the floor rolling. dgoHn, too, has the skills of maestro Doc Scott’s production, he forges his drums in stainless steel and is ready for battle. The truth is that “Some Shit Saaink” sounds like the old school hardcore from 1993-1995, and when the first tunes of this effort appeared on vinyl –released by Subtle Audio last year–, only the most alert jungle headz paid attention. But they also fell into the hands of Grant Wilson-Claridge and, less than a year later, the boss of Rephlex has seen fit to reissue –in an extended format and on CD– what to him sounded like the Holy Grail of the jungle revival. Now that that era of convulsions, syncopation and twists is so often cited, this record is a bridge between the past –the exit from the darkcore tunnel according to Origin Unknown– and the new school of Exit Records. The great thing about Macc & dgoHn is that trying to decipher their rhythmic structures is like reading the inscriptions on Tutankhamun’s grave without the Rosetta stone at hand.
Macc & dgoHn - Things go brown
Arp: “The Soft Wave” (Smalltown Supersound) After so much kosmische revival, after so many statements citing Kraut rock as an influence –once again, we don’t seem to get tired of it–, after so much modular synthesiser stuff, analogue giantism and gentlemen posting Jean -Michel Jarre videos on their Facebook pages, it turns out that Arp is the first one to pay proper tribute to early Kraftwerk, “Autobahn” era or even earlier. The start of “The Soft Wave”, “Pastoral Symphony: I. Dominoes II. Inifinity Room”, which sounds like the motorway tune’s intro prolonged for ten minutes, is a majestic door to enter the second album by Greek producer Alexis Georgopoulos, a cosmonaut who, three years ago, debuted with “In Light” on the same label, and who now returns to explore the sonic emptiness between the Weimar Republic and a reconnaissance satellite that has escaped the solar system. There’s an expressive register here that goes from romanticism ( “Catch Wave” and its pianos) to electro-acoustics, from Syd Barrett psychedelica to Stockhausen, but always returns into the arms of the supposed fathers of that sound Arp squeezes like fresh oranges in the morning. If “Grapefruit” isn’t another tribute to Kraftwerk, if “Summer Girl” couldn’t be a composition by Wendy Carlos and if “From A Balcony Overlooking The Sea” isn’t like the invisible thread that connects Soft Machine with Spiritualized, let God come down from the heavens and see about it.
The SRK: “Bassweight” (The SRK) One hour: it feels like a short one, especially because the start is furious, immersed without oxygen in Croydon and its mythology. It couldn’t be any other way: unlike “Dubfiles” (2009), that shoddy piece of “documentary” they tried to sell us as the ultimate overview of the dubstep scene which was only a collection of talking heads, lacking editing, utterly boring, “Bassweight” can claim the title of landmark audiovisual work to understand the origins, the evolution and the future of the London underground. Released on DVD about a month ago, “Bassweight” presents a serious problem for those who don’t understand the local accent –the producers of The SRK haven’t added any kind of subtitles, not even in English–, although it has to be said that the granulated texture and greyish colours of the images suggest more than the people moving in them. It’s a documentary that gives importance to the urban environment, the city, the concrete and glass, the cellars and pavements, and from the start –with Plastician guiding the camera through the places where dubstep was born: the first Croydon club, the original location of the Big Apple store (now disappeared: we only see it on the inside in a video commercial from years ago, starring Durrty Godz)– it explains how the genre has evolved up to the present (then, 2009), through authoritative voices like Kode9, Benga, Mala, Skream, N-Type and Mary Anne Hobbs.